Bel Canto Singing: Tosi’s “Observations on the Florid Song”

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cover21 Bel Canto Singing: Tosis Observations on the Florid Song

Here is the introduction for the recently published Observations on the Florid Song by Pier Francesco Tosi.

“This was the teachings of the school of those masters whom, disdainfully, many mediocre singers now call ancients. Observe carefully its rules, examine strictly its precepts and, if not blinded by prejudice, you will see that this school teaches to sing in tune, to project the voice, to make the words understood, to express, to use proper gesture, to perform in tempo, to improvise appropriate embellishments, to compose, and to study delicate, sensitive singing, in which alone good taste and judgment triumph. Compare this school with yours, and if you should find an area lacking in its precepts to instruct you, take from the Modern the rest.”
Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song, p. 78.


The foundations of the bel canto method and style were laid during the creation of opera and monody solo singing in the late 16th century. As the new art form developed, virtuoso singers emerged on the international scene with almost inhuman agility, range and beauty. Mostly castrati, but also including all voice types, these highly trained singers became the first rock stars of the world, with influence, incomes and lifestyles to match.

The techniques of these bel canto singers (and most of the singers themselves) originated exclusively from the conservatori and private voice studios of Italy. The training and techniques they used were passed down orally from master to apprentice for generations with very little recorded in writing. Pier Francesco Tosi was the first to publish (in 1723) a singing treatise of any considerable length and detail. It quickly became a fundamental and stylistic model for the generations of singing treatises that came after, from Mancini in 1777 to Richard Miller and Clifton Ware today. Within 40 years, Tosi’s Opinioni de’ cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno osservazioni sopra il canto figurato had been translated into English, German and French.

A castrato himself, in writing Opinioni, Tosi drew from his own bel canto musical training as a boy in Italy (most likely Milan), as well as his extensive experience as a professional singer and voice teacher. He also clearly developed his repertoire and taste in ornamentation from the many singers he observed over his career, including “Il Cortnoa,” “La Santini,” “Sifacio,” Rivani and especially Pistocchi. While his treatise is directed to and expresses a clear bias towards the castrated male voice, Tosi’s occasional mention of singers of other types shows that he believed all singers to be trained in the same way.

From Tosi’s writings we discover the surprising fact that bel canto training focused on aural aesthetics with almost no physiological instruction. Contrary to the many process-based singing methods developed starting with Garcia’s Traité (1840) that have focused on breathing, abdominal support, throat and head resonance, and laryngeal and pharyngeal positioning, the “old Italian school” method was results-based, focusing on intonation, tone and the successful, tasteful use of ornamentation. Indeed, the extent of Tosi’s physical advice to the singer was: “never suffer the Scholar to hold the Musick-Paper, in Singing, before his Face,” (p. 29) “compos[e] [the mouth] in a Manner […] rather inclined to a Smile” (p. 12) and “the Voice of the Scholar […]should always come forth neat and clear, without passing thro’ the Nose, or being choaked in the Throat; which are two the most horrible Defects in a Singer.” (pp. 10-11) It can be seen that even these directions were given to specifically fix an oral or visual aesthetic, rather than as part of a technical method.

Opinioni is primarily directed to the singing teacher, laying out what and how they must teach their pupils. It also includes a chapter and several passages addressed to the future professional singer with advice on good taste, ornaments, performance skills and the life and business of singing professionally. Tosi stresses the need for a long period of student training in reading and composing music, singing and constructing ornamentation, as well as in grammar, diction, social decorum and acting. All the standard ornaments of the time are thoroughly presented: appoggiatura, messa di voce, eight kinds of trills, passaggi (divisions), and portamento. Tosi also dedicates a chapter each to recitative and aria singing, preaching throughout the necessity of improvising one’s own graces and divisions on the spot in performances.

There are a few teachings of Tosi’s in his Opinioni that have been particularly interesting to singers and scholars over the years. Tosi clearly advocates uniting and blending the chest and head registers, (p. 11) the first recorded vocal pedagogue to do so. While earlier writers such as Zacconi (Practica di Musica, 1592, ch. 2) and Caccini (Le nuove musiche, 1602, intro.) stated that singers ought to only sing in their “natural voice,” Tosi went so far as to say “f [the chest and head register] do not perfectly unite, the Voice will be of divers Registers, and must consequently lose its Beauty.” (p. 11) Tosi’s is also the first recorded encouragement of the use of rubato as an embellishment. While he again and again rails on singers who accidentally sing out of tempo or self-aggrandizingly hold out notes as in the modern fermata, he encourages “[t]he stealing of Time […], provided he makes a Restitution with Ingenuity”; meaning, provided the singer catches back up the accompaniment, allowing them to keep tempo. (p. 67)

Another interesting element of [i]Opinioni is Tosi’s discussions on intonation and sol-fa-ing. During a period in which various methods of temperament were used by keyboards, strings and even singers, Tosi laments that “except in some few Professors, that modern Intonation is very bad.” (p. 9) He speaks of a differing “Semitone Major and Minor” (or a larger and a smaller semitone) whose “[d]ifference cannot be known by an Organ or Harpsichord, if the Keys of the Instrument are not split.” (p. 9) Consequentially, he warns that “if a Soprano was to sing D sharp, like E flat, a nice Ear will find he is out of Tune, because this last rises.”(p. 10) Tosi’s remedy to poor intonation is to begin the singer young on solfege, using the traditional gamut created by Guido. While both the Guidonian hexachord system and meantone temperament were becoming antiquated at the time Tosi wrote his treatise, he nevertheless insisted on their use.

Opinioni was in fact a watershed for much more than just early Baroque music theory and tuning. Tosi spends a considerable amount of time in his treatise praising the “ancient” cantabile (or “Pathetick,” as the original translator put it) style of his generation, around the turn of the 18th century. He cannot seem to understand why “the Mode” has moved to the rapid, highly ornate “Allegro” style popular at the time of his writing, which he lumps with insufficient singer training, ignoring the traditional Church modes and “tasteless” virtuosic displays as the great sin of the “modern” music generation. Being a pragmaticist, however, he still encourages “it will be of Use to a prudent Scholar, who is desirous to be expert in both Manners.”(p. 40)

Pier Francesco Tosi was born in Cesena, Italy in 1653 or 1654. There is a disagreement among sources whether he was the son of composer Giuseppe Felice Tosi. He was castrated before puberty to preserve his high voice. While it is not known where he received his rudimentary music training, he sang at a church in Rome from 1676 to 1677 and at the Milan cathedral from 1681 until 1685, when he was dismissed for “misconduct.” Thereafter, he made his one recorded appearance in opera at Reggio nell’Emilia in 1687 (in Varischino’s Odoacre) and was based for a time in Genoa. In 1693 Tosi relocated to London where he took on singing students and sang in weekly public concerts. In 1701 he entered into the service of Austrian Emperor Joseph I and Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, whom he served as a musical and diplomatic agent, traveling extensively until 1723. In 1724 he returned a London ablaze with the works of Handel, where he again taught and was a founding member of the Academy of Ancient Music. He took holy orders sometime before his death in Faenza, Italy in 1732. In addition to being a well-known soprano (of the cantabile style, singing mostly chamber music) and voice teacher, Tosi was a composer of several arias and cantatas. (Biographical information drawn from “Tosi, Pier Francsco,” New Grove Dictionary of Opera, <http://oxfordmusiconline.com>.)

John Ernest Galliard (1666-1747), English translator of Opinioni, was a successful opera composer and oboist in London, playing a significant part in the musical life of the city in the first half of the 18th century. He was a founding-member of both the Royal Society of Musicians and the Academy of Ancient Music, the latter on which Tosi also sat. Due to the quality of the translation and his long personal acquaintance with the author, Galliard’s translation and annotation of Tosi’s Opinioni (published in 1742 as Observations on the Florid Song) has long been considered as a high-quality and authoritative rendering. (Biographical information drawn from “Galliard, John Ernest,” New Grove Dictionary of Opera, <http://oxfordmusiconline.com>.)

GREGORY BLANKENBEHER

About Gregory Blankenbehler

With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, Gregory Blankenbehler has performed in Italy, England and France and completed a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. From his focused studies into comparative vocal pedagogy and private teaching experience, he has become an expert on teaching effective vocal technique to singers of all ages and specializes in rehabilitating "troubled" voices and helping them to reach their full potential. Gregory maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area where he also performs regularly and teaches community music classes for adults and children.